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Laney 'courts' certified interpreters

New program trains students to help with justice system for all

By Rachel Weaver - Tower Staff Writer
On May 15, 2013

Court-certified interpreters are making a difference in today's justice system. These interpreters are not only helping to assure that immigrants and non-English speakers are guaranteed their due-process rights in criminal proceedings, but that they are more comfortable navigating their way through the legal system.
With an enormous need for more of these certified interpreters in California, Laney College is moving to the forefront of legal court interpretation education as this spring they graduate their first "cohort" (their term) of interpretation students.
While Laney does not yet officially offer a degree or a certificate in legal court interpretation, a small group of students who have completed the necessary coursework will be graduating. The program outline includes Introduction to Spanish Language Legal Interpretation and a political science course, which is an overview of the California Court system.
If students decide they are interested in pursuing legal court interpretation, then they progress to the three classes that teach towards the three different modes of interpretation. On top of an elective, students are also strongly encouraged to take Spanish for Bilingual Speakers.
This is because the legal court interpretation program, now in its fourth year of development, is only geared towards Spanish interpretation. Peralta District general counsel Thuy Nguyen explains that when Laney was developing the program, the greatest need determined was for Spanish interpreters. However, her advisory committee hopes to add more languages.
"The goal of the committee was to start off with Spanish because Spanish was the largest demographic language in Alameda County. Then we did a survey and found that then came Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese," she said.
"We really hope we can pursue those areas too with the same success of the Spanish program."
This advisory committee, which was formed almost seven years ago, consisted of an array of community members, including Nguyen, former Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris, and Superior Court Judge Gordon Baranco. Together they identified the need for more certified interpreters and developed the idea for the legal court interpretation program at Laney.
"It became very obvious that there was a great need for this," Nguyen said. "And the question became 'If there's this shortage, why can't community colleges become a training ground to develop and train qualified court interpreters in various languages?'
"So we met together as a group of communities with the judge and we grew in terms of the community advisory group of lawyers and judges and members of the community and developed this program."
The program has certainly developed. Certified Interpreter and teacher Angela Zawadzki was initially the only faculty member teaching a pilot course when the program first began. Now, there are two other teachers and a full time faculty member.
Along with the faculty, the student population has been growing. There are currently around 50 students taking legal court interpretation courses. Zawadzki hopes this number will continue to increase.
"We are very happy this program is in place," she said. "But we need a lot of support from the Laney community. We need the program to grow."
 Nguyen equally has high hopes for the program. "I want the Laney community to know that this program is there, that if students are interested and they have a natural talent already or natural ability with their native language, they can take some of these classes and see if it's for them," she said.
One student who found herself interested in the legal interpretation program is Emilia Cortez. Cortez explains how legal court interpreters are certainly needed.
"I have seen and heard from Latino people how they struggle because of the fact that they don't speak English, or because they don't feel confident or comfortable speaking in another language other than Spanish when dealing with legal situations," Cortez said.
Cortez, who moved to the U.S. from Guatemala three years ago, is enrolled in interpretation classes and hopes to be prepared enough to take the court interpreter certification exam. One final class, Preparation for the California Court Interpreter Exam, readies students for this certification exam. According to Zawadzki, the exam is difficult and many find they aren't prepared upon the first attempt, and don't pass.  
Nguyen explained that if either a student doesn't pass the exam, or they choose not to take it, there are employment opportunities for them in the community.
"They can do language interpreting in the legal environment for so many other places," Nguyen said. "They don't have to just work in the courts. Having that skill is just valuable, period, in other work environments."
Zawadzki similarly explained that a number of students are already working in the community, in jobs for attorneys and other legal professions that bring them to the program.
Both Zawadzki and Nguyen echoed however the sentiment that legal court interpretation is a real, true profession that is relevant and respectable. They want students like Emilia Cortez to know that not only are students like her becoming interpreters, but they are also allowing others to access justice.
"They are the translator, the medium in which people can access the justice system," Nguyen said. "That's big and that's an incredible responsibility and an incredible privilege."

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